Retroviruses Meeting

Visitor of the Week: Jordan Becker

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Meet Jordan Becker of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Jordan recently joined Reuben Harris’ lab as a postdoc after earning his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison last October. He received the Uta von Schwedler Prize last year and returned again this year – his third, consecutive Retroviruses meeting – to present a talk titled "Subcellular distribution of APOBEC3 proteins regulate interactions with and restriction of HIV-1".

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
Viruses are the world's best cellular biologists: they are amazing at learning how to manipulate their hosts. Much in that way, I'm a cellular biologist who has used viruses to understand how cells function and how viruses hijack, avoid, or remove cellular factors. More specifically, I study viral RNA trafficking, interactions with cellular RNA-binding proteins, and how a family of nucleic acid mutating enzymes (APOBEC3 proteins) lead to viral mutation and evolution.

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?
I completed my PhD with Nathan Sherer and became adept at fluorescence microscopy to, literally, observe how fluorescent versions of viral and cellular proteins and RNAs move in cells. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words” and seeing where things are in cells and how viruses can mess that up are powerful. However, being able to quantify those images and support my observations with traditional biochemical methods (e.g. blots, PCR, infectivity assays) is even more powerful. To be fair I like the way I study RNA trafficking just as much as the field and results themselves.

How did your scientific journey begin? 
Prior to beginning   my PhD, I worked first as an undergraduate researcher then as a technician in a cancer immunology lab with Douglas McNeel. I processed blood samples and performed functional immune assays from clinical trials in prostate cancer patients. I enjoyed working with translational/clinical samples that could inform patient health as well as tell us about cancer immunology. More than that, I really learned to love the academic environment with great graduate students, postdocs, fellows, and my first mentor Doug. His lab was a place where happy people thought about interesting ideas; and as I've worked in other labs, I have always found broad curiosity and interesting/creative ideas to be one of the most important features of a lab! That was the case with Nate Sherer and my graduate lab coworkers, and it continues in my new lab with Reuben Harris. 

Was there something specific about the Retroviruses meeting that drew you to attend?
The retrovirus community is intense but also quite friendly. The CSHL Retroviruses meeting is an amazing venue to both incite and settle controversies – some again and again. Science is iterative and by knowing the history of the field and returning to interesting ideas we can gain insight into what has been done right and what can be done better.

What is your key takeaway from the meeting? 
For me, the key takeaway is it’s time to take imaging of HIV RNA trafficking and RNA-binding proteins to a new level. There’s definitely an expectation or hope to keep trying new experiments in more relevant cell types and with diverse viral strains. I’ll see how that goes!

What did you pick up or learn from the meeting that you plan to apply to your work?  
I really enjoyed the recent fluorescent microscopy performed by the Markus Thali lab using lightsheet microscopy to image HIV-1 lymphocytes over long periods of time, and work by Collin Kieffer using multiscale imaging techniques to look at sites HIV-1 assembly in humanized mice. I'm always excited of new ways to look deeper and see more.  

If someone curious in attending a future iteration of this meeting asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
Come, bring your data and love for virology (and coffee and beer). The scientists who attend this meeting are all incredibly friendly, creative, brilliant, and always willing to settle disagreements over a beer.

How many CSHL meetings have you attended?
This is my third CSHL meeting – all Retroviruses (2016, 2017, and 2018). 

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
CSHL is like going to summer camp. You're here, you're not going anywhere else, and you meet amazing new friends. I like to go for walks along the bay or out to the end of Bungtown Road, and have lunch out on the lawn to work on my tan. 

Thank you to Jordan for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

A Word From: Vinay Pathak & Stefan Sarafianos

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This week, we hosted the CSHL meeting on Retroviruses. Started in 1975, this is one of only a handful of CSHL meetings that occur annually as opposed to every other year. This year’s organizers – Vinay Pathak and Stefan Sarafianos – are veterans of the meeting but new to organizing it. We checked in with them for a quick discussion about the meeting and major updates they’ve made to it. Among the changes they made are “five-minute poster pitches,” where select poster presenters summarize their projects in short talks in the Auditorium to entice more people to stop by during the poster sessions. Here’s what Vinay and Stefan had to say:

Stefan: Vinay and I increased the base number of scientists directly involved in the meeting in terms of participation in talks, sharing their art by displaying their science on the abstract book cover, and even chairing the sessions. This year, there are more session chairs and more talks because we introduced 5-minute talks. This is new for this meeting and we’re very happy so far.

Vinay: The people I’ve spoken with who gave a 5-minute talk have been appreciative of the opportunity. All of them presented the highlights of their work, uniformly stayed on time, and what this does is it gives people the opportunity to go to their posters and discuss the details of their works. I think they’ve all been very happy about it so far. We’ve heard no complaints about it so I hope that this will become a regular feature of the meeting in the future.

Stefan: Presenting a talk makes a difference for those who are still in the early stages of their career – including PI’s.

Regarding the session chairs that Vinay and Stefan chose:

Vinay: The idea is to give more junior faculty the opportunity to chair a session so they know what it’s like to stand in front of a crowd, direct the discussion and guide it.

Stefan: Chairing a session is an indication of accomplishment and recognition in your field. It’s something you can take to your department chairperson and include in your annual report. It is important.

Vinay: We were looking more for people who would benefit from chairing a session. There are a lot of senior people here who have done it before – it’s not a big deal to them. For someone who’s in their first, second or third year of an independent career, it’s a good opportunity for them to have this experience and, as Stefan said, they can take this to their department chair as an indication that they’re being recognized internationally.

Stefan: And among their colleagues. We made sure to pair the younger chairs with the more experienced ones so the meeting still runs smooth. They’ve all been very fantastic...they all deserve credit.

Another meeting feature the organizers updated this year is how the poster sessions were arranged. Rather than ordering the 151 poster presenters by name, they grouped them into research areas like Virus Entry and IFITMs, Uncoating, and Tetherin/Bst-2: 

Vinay: We organized this year’s poster sessions according to the subject. The last several years it’s been done alphabetically, which is a much more random way of doing it. We’ve gotten good feedback and people like the fact that it has been organized by topics this year.

For those who are on the fence about attending this longstanding meeting, we asked Vinay and Stefan for their advice and thoughts:

Vinay: This is the best meeting for basic science relating to HIV and retroviral replication throughout the entire year. So, I think for everyone who’s working in this field – molecular biology, cell biology, HIV replication – it is absolutely essential they come here and learn what’s going on in the field and to keep up-to-date.

Stefan: It’s a one-stop catch-up with everything that’s happening in the field. It’s a holistic kind of thing. You look at every step of the viral life cycle.

Thank you to both Stefan and Vinay for taking the time to chat with us. For more conversations with our other meeting organizers and course instructors, go here. Also, to gain a meeting-goer's perspective on this meeting, read our Q&A with Shaima Akhlaq

Lastly, Retroviruses will be back on campus May 21 – 26, 2018. 

Visitor of the Week: Shaima Akhlaq

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Meet Shaima Akhlaq of the UAE University (United Arab Emirates). The graduate student, who defends her thesis this upcoming fall semester, works with Farah Mustafa in the Department of Biochemistry in close collaboration with Tahir Rizvi's research group within the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. She is on campus for the Retroviruses meeting where she presented a poster and a short talk. Read on for more on the CSHL first-timer's experience at the annual meeting.

What are you working on?
We are studying viral gRNA export from nucleus to cytoplasm, stability, translation and their interplay during retroviral replication. My current research interest lies in answering some of the basic aspects about the life cycle of Mouse Mammary Tumor Virus.

What is your key takeaway from the Meeting?
The immense learning and connections I have developed are my key takeaways from this meeting.

How many CSHL meetings and/or courses have you attended? 
This is my first visit to CSHL and my first CSHL meeting; though my poster was selected for last year’s Retroviruses meeting. Also, I would be very eager to participate in the annual Retroviruses meeting in the upcoming years.

Was there something specific about the Mechanisms in Metabolic Signaling meeting that drew you to attend? 
My first and foremost attraction was to meet the field specialists and catch up with the latest advancements. I was also excited to share my results with other colleagues in my scheduled talk and poster. And I intend to find a competitive PhD position with an established group participating in this meeting.

If someone curious in attending this meeting asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her? 
I would extend my words about this exceptional opportunity of meeting with all field specialists under one roof.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL? 
The scenic view of this campus is one thing which took my breath away in first sight because flying from a desert to this lush green island is nothing less than a scientific vacation.  

Thank you to Shaima for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course – go here.